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As Glasnost Sweeps Eastern Europe, JDC Reveals Work Behind Iron Curtain

December 6, 1989
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The organization some call the “best-kept secret in the Jewish world” doesn’t want to be kept secret any longer.

After years of working quietly behind the scenes, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is finally ready for some “glasnost” of its own.

The democratization process sweeping Eastern Europe is allowing the JDC to be more forthcoming about its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and promote Jewish life to the Communist bloc and other parts of the world.

This new, higher profile is JDC’s gift to itself, as the American Jewish vehicle for overseas aid celebrates its 75th anniversary.

In the present atmosphere of openness, JDC officials are now talking publicly about the thousands of packages of religious and cultural material that were slipped into the East bloc back when the Iron Curtain was at its most impenetrable.

JDC “performed this function discreetly. The times dictated that this should be so,” JDC President Sylvia Hassenfeld told those gathered at last month’s Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly in Cincinnati.

But now, Hassenfeld exulted, “JDC is once again able to function openly in the Soviet Union, after so many years of working in the shadows.”

A similar transformation is taking place in JDC’s programs in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

“We were in these places long before glasnost hit them,” JDC’s executive director, Michael Schneider, said in a recent interview.


The changes mean the difference between smuggling Jewish books into the Soviet Union and JDC’s new, ambitious plan to deliver and set up 150 fully stocked Jewish libraries to Soviet cities. This fall, it was able to talk openly of its sponsorship of the Israeli pavilion at the biennial Moscow Book Fair.

Prior to the change of atmosphere, Hungarian and Polish Jews had to find their way to Yugoslavia to participate in JDC’s Jewish cultural summer camp, since Yugoslavia was the only East bloc country in which JDC was permitted to operate a summer program. Now Jewish summer camps have been established in Hungary and Poland.

Schneider’s eyes light up when he talks about plans to enhance and expand JDC programs that care for the elderly and sick, provide kosher meals and fund Jewish schools throughout Eastern Europe.

His enthusiasm increases when discussing the prospect of increased funds to do so. The money is expected to flow more freely once JDC is relieved of the responsibility of caring for the Soviet Jews waiting in transit centers outside Rome for permission to settle in the United States.

As the new system of direct migration of Soviet Jews to the United States and Israel takes hold, the transit centers in Rome and Vienna will no longer be needed.

The transit stations will be closed “by June, we hope” Schneider said, gazing upward, as if asking for heavenly assistance.

The cost of the European transit centers, particularly the large one in Ladispoli, Italy, have been a huge financial drain on JDC, leaving it with a $8.2 million dollar deficit in 1988, out of a total budget of $84.6 million.

This was largely due to the cost of aiding the transmigrants in Italy, which skyrocketed from $250,000 in 1986 to $10.6 million in 1988.


While JDC officials were happy to assist the thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate, they are now eager to get out of Ladispoli and reinvest energy and funds in their fundamental mission: helping Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the Third World sustain themselves and their Jewish institutions.

JDC’s programs also include channeling non-sectarian aid to countries such as Ethiopia, where its has been providing humanitarian assistance for years, long before the Operation Moses airlift of Ethiopian Jews.

JDC also offers aid, in the name of the Jewish people, to non-Jewish communities facing hardship. Once recent example was its sponsorship this past summer of a project in which victims of the December 1988 earthquake in Soviet Armenia were airlifted to Israel for treatment and rehabilitation in Israeli hospitals.

The majority of JDC’s budget comes from money raised by the United Jewish Appeal, supplemented by individual donations and contributions from Jewish communities abroad.

JDC’s secret to working in countries with repressive governments, Schneider said, is its “assiduously avoiding interfering in local polities,” as well as undue publicity.

Its low profile and avowedly non-political status has allowed it to run schools in Moslem countries that shun Israel, such as Syria, where the JDC operates Jewish days schools for the tiny Jewish community that remains there.

It is now the Arab world, as opposed to the East bloc countries, in which there remains a veil of secrecy over some of JDC’s activities.

A JDC official estimated that 5 to 10 percent of the agency’s programs continue to operate in the shadows.

These programs will have to remain secret until the winds of glasnost that toppled the Berlin Wall and opened the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe to their fellow Jews in the West are able to make a dent in the wall of fear and hatred that stands in the way of peace in the Middle East.

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